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The lengths that Minnesota land and wildlife managers go to understand, protect and manage the state's resources can at times appear like a horizon without end.

In that context and in advance of a new year, the Star Tribune asked specialists at the Department of Natural Resources, federal agencies and the state's tribal communities to tell us about their varied, challenging work. What's a specific priority in 2024? What might they want the public to know?

Below are some of their responses:

Healthy wild rice has a shot in Aitkin County

Ann Geisen, wildlife lake specialist, Department of Natural Resources (DNR)

Minnesota has more acres of natural wild rice than any other state in the country. Yet, a 270-acre shallow lake in Aitkin County that went fallow more than 20 years ago was worth saving. If a multiyear, $60,000 restoration project continues to go right, a healthy crop of wild rice plants will push above the surface in Swamp Lake by midsummer.

Located about 7 miles north of Malmo, Swamp was one of 13 lakes in Minnesota in the 1930s and 1940s where the federal government purchased land to preserve tribal rice camps. Since then, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe purchased additional lakeside property. Another area around the lake is owned by the state and managed for waterfowl and other wildlife.

This barge, called a cookie cutter, cut and chopped its way through miles of dense vegetation that clogged the outlet channel from Swamp Lake.
This barge, called a cookie cutter, cut and chopped its way through miles of dense vegetation that clogged the outlet channel from Swamp Lake.

Provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Before this century, Swamp Lake produced rice from shore to shore. That changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s when vegetation and beaver dams clogged the lake's 6-mile-long outlet channel, raising the water level too high for rice to grow. The stagnation lingered until 2021 when the DNR hired a heavy equipment contractor to cut through the outlet bog. In the process, 35 beaver dams were removed. The work restored flow to a downstream waterfowl impoundment and dramatically lowered Swamp's water level.

Excessive rainfall in 2022 delayed progress, but the DNR and the Mille Lacs band last year applied 3,000 pounds of wild rice seed to the basin. If conditions don't change, the rice should emerge in July. I'm hoping for more rice plants than I can count. Even if the crop is strong, the DNR might delay harvest for at least one more season to foster additional seeding.

The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund provided 84% of the project's funding. Contributions also came from Ducks Unlimited and state duck stamp sales.

Restoration will 'light up' old wetlands

John Maile, Wetland Management Program supervisor, DNR

Our Wetland Management Program rolled out in 2020. It concentrates on restoring wetlands of any size with a current emphasis on the prairie region. This year's agenda includes an opportunity to re-landscape a 320-acre parcel of land in Mahnomen County valued at more than $1 million. It was gifted last year to the Minnesota DNR by the late Leo Reitan, a Johnson Space Center physicist who grew up in the small town of Waubun.

The parcel has 87 restorable wetland sites to improve waterfowl habitat, promote clean water, increase the area's flood storage capacity and support public use of wetlands. The largest of the 87 unique wetlands is 10½ acres. It'll be a showcase project, overseen by DNR Wildlife Manager Rob Baden. Much of the acquired land was intensively farmed, but the re-contouring will light up all the old wetlands according to historical data and with the precision of sophisticated surveying and mapping technology.

This is the second piece of local land donated by Reitan, a member of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, and the combined wildlife area will be named after him. The restoration will benefit the birds, prairie fens and small white lady slippers, a decreasing plant species. The project also provides new space for public hunting. Construction could begin in 2024 after budgeting and more planning, including input from neighbors and local watershed officials.

Moose population remains area of concern

Darren Vogt, Resource Management Division director, 1854 Treaty Authority

Moose ("mooz" in Ojibwe) are an iconic species in northeastern Minnesota and continue to be important for tribal nations exercising treaty rights. Under the Treaty of 1854, land that is now northeastern Minnesota was ceded to the U.S. government, and tribes retained rights to hunt, fish, and gather in this area known as the 1854 Ceded Territory. (The 1854 Treaty Authority is governed by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The organization is charged to preserve and protect treaty rights and related natural/cultural resources.)

Due to multiple and interacting factors (climate, habitat, disease, predation), the moose population has declined in northeastern Minnesota. We remain concerned over its long-term health. The 1854 Treaty Authority cooperates with other agencies in a moose survey flown by helicopter each January with results used to develop an annual population estimate. Our organization conducts habitat use surveys and monitors for diseases spread through interaction with deer. Many government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, researchers, etc. cooperate well together on a variety of efforts, including a moose habitat collaborative and a moose habitat planning project recently underway. These partnerships continue to develop as we work to preserve moose for future generations.

Partnership win-win for habitat, hunters

Todd Tisler, Chippewa National Forest wildlife biologist, U.S. Forest Service

The Chippewa National Forest signed Stewardship Project agreements with the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) in 2019 and 2022 that provide a framework for cooperative management activities to enhance ruffed grouse habitats, maintain hunter-walking trails, and improve other important habitats. Working together is a powerful method for achieving shared land management goals.

The RGS assists the forest with the preparation and harvest of timber and other forest management activities. Revenue created from the timber sales is used locally on trail maintenance, upland opening maintenance and pollinator habitat improvement.

The partnership has been mutually beneficial and will continue to provide opportunities for hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts, restore critical wildlife habitats, and provide local jobs.

Shared stewardship builds on a long history of collaboration with partners and stakeholders. It places a renewed emphasis on planning and decisionmaking when confronting today's challenges.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its recovery plan for the Canada lynx.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its recovery plan for the Canada lynx.

David Zalubowski • Associated Press

Boreal forest wildlife is the focus

Cheron Ferland, Superior National Forest wildlife biologist, U.S. Forest Service

As lead wildlife biologist, one of the main challenges is sustaining the health of the northern Minnesota boreal forest. The Superior National Forest lies on the southern edge of the boreal forest ecosystem, thus the periphery of the range of numerous wildlife species including the threatened Canada lynx, the Taiga alpine butterfly, the eastern heather vole and moose.

The boreal forest is being impacted by insect outbreaks such as spruce budworm, increasing prevalence of parasites such as winter ticks and brain worm, and a changing climate. These challenges can trickle down and have adverse effects to wildlife species dependent on this ecosystem. As a steward of 3 million acres of multiple-use public lands, my job is to find a balance that sustains diverse and healthy wildlife populations now and for future generations. Heading into 2024, I have hope that the actions we are taking will allow this boreal forest to introduce future generations to its treasures, including its wildlife.

This requires the contributions and coordination of many — tribal perspectives, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources partners, assistance from nongovernmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy, and researchers such as the University of Minnesota — to name a few.

Driftless creek project is boon for anglers

Jim Melander, stream habitat construction supervisor, DNR

Here at the Lanesboro fish hatchery, the DNR devotes time and money every year to Driftless Area trout stream maintenance work, large and small. This year's major summer construction project will be more visible than most — on the hatchery's doorstep in a high-use area along Duschee Creek.

It's been a popular fishing area for 50 years, stocked with rainbow trout and holding resident brown trout. Many of our maintenance projects — including this one — are designed to address erosion; add fish cover; remove silt; improve water quality; improve creekside slope angles; realign curves; and provide accessibility. Typically we tackle each assignment with our own three-person work crew using a state-owned excavator, skid steer and other equipment we keep at the hatchery. That's the case again this summer.

Duschee Creek received maintenance in 1997, but it needs renewal and our funding partner is Trout Unlimited, once again. The group's contribution of $70,000 will pay for lots of rock and other needed materials. The 6-mile creek empties into the south branch of the Root River, downstream from the hatchery. It has very high, muddy banks that impede anglers. The project will improve three access areas by adding crushed rock, removing trees and seeding grass. Combined, the work will cover nine-tenths of a mile, likely starting around midsummer.